Whither The Religious Right?: New Report Examines Future Of Theocratic Movement

A partnership between the largely fundamentalist Protestant Religious Right and far-right Catholics has given new life to the theocrats among us

The Supreme Court’s June rulings on marriage equality were definitely a blow to the Religious Right. The reaction of these groups was nothing short of hysterical.

So what does the future hold for this movement? Some analysts are quick to point at cultural and demographic trends that they say spell doom for the Religious Right. I’m not so sure.

It’s true that the Religious Right faces challenges. Younger Americans – even self-identified evangelicals – are more likely to back marriage equality; they tend to view LGBT rights generally as a less defining issue.

But those same polls show that issues like legal abortion and the meaning of religious liberty remain contentious. A new report by Frederick Clarkson, senior fellow at Political Research Associates, asserts that these issues will provide new fodder for the Religious Right and its allies in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. I’m inclined to agree.

One need only look at the political landscape in the states to see this playing out. Ultra-conservative lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party hold sway in more than 20 states, and they are passing a wave of regressive anti-abortion bills.

At the same time, we’re seeing a constant barrage of legislative assaults on public education through vouchers and other schemes as well as various proposals designed to undermine church-state separation.

Clarkson, a longtime ally of Americans United, points to the Manhattan Declaration, a document released in 2010 by an alliance of prominent Religious Right figures and ultra-conservative Catholic leaders. I attended the press conference when the document was unveiled. I recall being struck by its openly theocratic overtones. It looked like an attempt to drag the world back to the Dark Ages.

The Declaration also pledged defiance, brazenly asserting that its signers “will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia” and against “any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”

One of the engineers of the Manhattan Declaration was Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton who is known for his extreme opposition to gay rights and his insistence that same-sex unions violate “natural law.” (This is a fancy way of saying that top Catholic clerics don’t like it.)

Despite his throwback views, George’s fans hail him as a brilliant thinker. He’s well connected politically and was recently named the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The partnership between the largely fundamentalist Protestant Religious Right and far-right Catholics, Clarkson argues, has given new life to the theocrats among us. He also points out that the movement is well funded and has built its own network of institutions.

“The election of George W. Bush in 2000 has been regarded as the high-water mark for the political power of the Christian Right,” Clarkson writes. “But it would be a mistake to see the movement’s power and legacy in terms of the success of any particular politician. Its greatest success, in fact, has been somewhat under the radar: creating an institutional network that fosters young conservatives and encourages them to translate conservative ideas into public policy. Regent University and Liberty University, for example, have now graduated a generation of lawyers. Perhaps most prominently, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is a graduate of Regent University Law School.”

A battle is looming, Clarkson asserts, over the meaning of religious liberty. Again, we’re already seeing the first skirmishes here as Religious Right legal groups insist that even secular corporations should not have to tolerate birth control in an employee health-care plan if the owner finds it offensive. They’re also demanding a host of exemptions from otherwise generally applicable laws.

Concludes Clarkson, “The Christian Right, stung by recent losses in the culture war, is publicly doubling down on its antichoice and antigay positions. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have found common ground – and the motivation to set aside centuries of sectarian conflict – by focusing on these issues while claiming that their ‘religious liberty’ is about to be crushed. The movement is mobilizing its resources, forging new alliances, and girding itself to engage its enemies. It is also giving fair warning about its intentions. It may lose the long-term war, but whatever happens, one thing is certain: It won’t go down without a fight.”

Clarkson gives us much to think about. Take some time to read his full report. You’ll be reminded that we still have a lot of work to do.